“Lahore L’hore ay” – but is Lahori culture good for business?

Lahore seems to have some natural advantages when it comes to business. Why is Karachi still far ahead? It’s all about the culture.

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 Having spent my childhood in Lahore but worked most of my life at corporations based in Karachi, a return to the city once known as the ‘Paris of the East’ for an ongoing consulting assignment some months ago has been an eye-opening experience.

Lahore has a lot going for it. For starters, it is the hub of business in central Punjab. All large business houses in the surrounding areas of Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot and many other cities converge in Lahore with most having located their head offices here. In the recent past many of these businesses have been financially successful, as evident in the newfound prosperity behind the show of wealth one becomes accustomed to seeing in Lahore.

The city has recently built modern infrastructure of roads and transport which is a huge advantage to businesses. Lahore also has a plethora of business schools topped by LUMS, reputed to be the country’s premier business school (full disclosure, I graduated from the first batch. Sorry, IBA). All this coupled with much better law and order and civil administration provides a sense of general wellbeing and prosperity here. But despite all this, Karachi seems miles ahead in terms of output.

So why exactly is this so? For starters, Karachi has some inherent advantages. It is a port city and the center for the country’s financial markets. It has always been the base for multinational companies operating in Pakistan, which has helped build its work ethos as well as its trained and developed management cadre.

The businessmen I have come to know in Lahore return from work-related trips to Karachi surprised at the different business culture there. They comment on how Karachiites take their work more seriously, how much more professional and disciplined they are. All this, my Lahore friends recognize, is good for business. Many seem to be coming to a realization about the need to change Lahore’s work ethos in order to make it more productive. Some even realise that unless they transform their culture, they will be unable to compete and grow. What a waste of potential that would be.

“I want to take a group of big business owners from Lahore to Karachi for us to just observe how people work in Karachi. We have so much to learn from them”, a large business owner in Lahore told me recently.

I agree. For someone used to Karachi’s fast paced and relatively efficient work ethics – far from perfect though these may be – it can be frustrating to try and do business in Lahore. The workforce focus here seems to be on maintaining status quo and not to change for the better. Frequently during a work day, I hear Lahoris reflecting upon some inefficiency or work mishap with words like: “Things only happen in this way in this industry/sector/city”. What most find difficult to grasp is the process required to get to the next performance level. A certain evolution is required which can only happen if they accept “what got you here will not get you there”.

 The obsession with large spaces; be it homes, offices, cars, overshadows any sense of efficiency or introspection on such issues. Much can be achieved with well designed, compact workspaces. Besides more value for money, such spaces improve teamwork and help with sharing ideas, building community among a team, and so on. For these reasons, most company offices in Karachi are located in office buildings, unlike Lahore where most offices are run out of homes converted into workspaces. No wonder they look more like drawing rooms than offices.

 Another issue in Lahore, probably true for other parts of Punjab as well, is the lack of diversity in the workforce. There are many different communities in Punjab of course, but the ethnic base is still largely the same. This is very different from Karachi, enriched by a variety of opinions, views, and lifestyles from many ethnic and religious communities other than the mainstream, like Hindus, Parsees, Goan and Anglo-Christians.

 Another aspect of diversity is that Punjab’s urban labor force includes few women. Many consider it against their traditional community or family ethos to allow “their” women to work outside the home. So, most women in Punjab’s cities don’t go out to work. The lack of women workers is a huge drawback for businesses located here, particularly in the textile and garment industry. Globally, this industry employs mostly women workers for stitching and sewing. 

However, in Lahore, the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Punjab province, there are hardly any women in this sector. This is a problem because women tend to have nimbler fingers and more dexterity, enabling them to produce better quality than men in this field. Women’s increased labour force participation can also bring about positive social change as it has in Bangladesh and other such countries where more women are out working and earning, helping to uplift their family situations.

Given all these issues, how can Lahore change its work culture to make it more efficient? To begin with, business owners in Lahore need to become open to new ideas — accepting different perspectives even in their traditional businesses. They need to eschew traditional mindsets, challenge the status quo, and change compensation structures to reward creativity and innovation besides just short-term profitability. In this aspect, Lahore business groups need to learn not just from Karachi but even look at cities abroad.

Punjab may not have the diversity that helps generate creativity, but its business community could take the lead in changing this, for example by opening training institutes for women. Training women and paying them well will encourage families to let them go out and work. The flip side of this of course is that women end up bearing the double burden of domestic work as well as work outside the home – something that begins to change in the next generations with increased awareness as they bring up their children differently.

Success won’t come overnight. But to move towards making Lahore, and other cities in Punjab more productive, those with a stake in it must initiate change in their work ethics and culture. The very few companies in Lahore who have realized these things have already started seeing advantages accrue to their businesses and are trendsetters. What will it take for the rest to follow? For the sake of the region’s development and economy, the transformation must begin soon.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Nice article. I have also observed this during the course of my career. It is quite evident for anyone who has lived in both cities. There is a huge difference in people’s attitude and level of professionalism in both cities. It is quite a challenge actually to work in an office in Lahore if you have been used to working in Karachi. People are just so different.

    Let me give an example. During my time in Lahore I found that it is quite difficult to work with your colleagues and subordinates. For one, they are very chatty and most of the time you will find them sitting on the desks of their other colleagues talking about their daily lives. Then long lunches and plans for meeting after office, which was by the way one thing I liked, as in Karachi, the colleagues know you only in office and after office noone wants to meet or even see each other’s faces. Lahoris are very warm and they don’t really have the concept of ‘personal space’. The bad thing is the gossiping and concern more about the other colleague’s life and salaries and less about the task that needs to be completed urgently. The relaxed and laid back attitude is like a culture which is very hard to change.

    Another thing I found out is that the people in general are not very straightforward. One interesting thing I noticed that almost everyone thinks himself as very clever, and others dumb. Due to this it is very hard to take people on their words and commitments. They will say one thing one day and then change their stance while never being apologetic about that. I know it is quite a generalization, and there have been exceptions, but that’s another thing you have to be careful while living in Lahore as trusting people blindly will lead to a lot of issues. The good thing is that with time you will get used to give people some margin over their earlier commitments and in general get relaxed and not worked up if people don’t meet expectations. After some years, you will also become like a Lahori and remain cool and chill in any situation in life.

  2. I have also worked in both cities but the writer, with all due respect, is trying to only make a point with no real data and just observations.

    If he goes to any bank, multinational even restaurants or Punjabi villages. You see women working everywhere. It is actually more common in villages and the high-paying jobs.

    Obv, in his own ‘consulting’ position, he probably worked with one company where he did not find as many women as he wanted

    I’m sure if companies like Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsi are working from Lahore as their base, as well as some of Pakistan’s biggest export houses, they really are ‘professional’ and world class at what they do.

    Do they sound ‘laid back’ sure, but a serious business person anywhere in the world, takes their business seriously

  3. A major cultural difference is the tendency to ‘show off’ in Lahore compared to Karachi. Due to this people tend to spend more than their means. Also the culture of charity is much more prevalent in Karachi as compared to Punjab.

  4. I worked in Lahore and absolutely hated it. Being an ethnic Pashtun, it was even more difficult for me. I agree with the above comment that many people in Lahore think they are clever and others dumb. They are also not very ethical and there is too much politics around.

  5. I would say that this man doesnt know any thing deeper. Big business companies like nishat, gourmet, nestle, cocacola, pepsi, pia are doing their business from lahore. And each business group is one if it’s kind.themost modern city un the country is lahore. It also has best public transport and road network in the country

    • I’m quite sure you never visited Karachi and only know it from what it is portrayed in Media. For people living in Punjab all life, it sure is by far the best and most modern city in Punjab. But when you come to Karachi and see the professionalism there, Lahore looks like Gujranwala.

      • ha ha ha
        Karachi walon ko apnay sheher ka naam tou sahi bolna nahi aata Karaanchi karaanchi kahtay phirtay Is this the professionalism??
        tell me. Bicharay Karachi walon nay tou enlish kay achay khasay alfaz birar diay hein
        Original Forn Bigri Karachi Form
        Cable Cabil
        Seven Sevin
        Blood bilud
        Pen Pain
        Itni tou tameez nahi h keh sarkon pan ki peek nahi phanktay unlogon mein professionalism ki baat kartay ho tum??

  6. Many Large Multi National companies are operating
    their business from Lahore. i.e,
    Gourmet
    Pepsico
    Coca-cola
    Nestle
    Descon
    Nespak
    Nishat Linen
    MCB
    Dunya Group
    Orient group
    Haier group
    Tecno
    these are the name of a few companies having their headquarters in Lahore I can even give you a very large list of Companies.

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